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A new California bill that would require Catholic priests to report confessions of sexual abuse passed the state Senate on May 23rd, 2019. Currently, in that state, therapists, doctors, and others are mandated to break client privilege and report child abuse and neglect, but so far members of the clergy have enjoyed an exception if knowledge of the abuse or neglect was obtained during confession.

The new bill would put an end to that exception, and would fine priests who failed to comply $1,000, or place them in jail for six months, or both. Catholic organizations across the state have opposed the bill, stating it would force priests to break the seal of confession—one of the most sacrosanct beliefs in the church.

According to CBS News, on July 1, 2019, the Vatican’s highest court issued a document approved by the Pope that strongly reiterated the Catholic Church’s position—that priests may not, under any circumstances, reveal information learned inside the confessional.

The Vatican Feels the Need to Intervene on Proposed Legislation

The Vatican stated that legislation such as what California is considering would be an “unacceptable offense” against religious freedom. Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, the court’s Major Penitentiary, added that the document should help explain the concept of confession and why the seal of the confessional is necessary.

Democrat State Senator Jerry Hill disagrees, stating that the bill would help protect child safety and that individuals suspected of harming children should be reported. “The law should apply equally to all professionals,” he said upon introducing the bill, “with no exceptions period. The exemption for clergy only protects the abuser and places children at further risk.”

Hill also claimed that the exemption for clergy members is partly to blame for the unreported abuse of thousands of children.

Of note is the fact that the bill would affect not only Catholic priests but Protestant and Mormon ministers as well, who recognize the confidentiality of all penitents.

Investigations Into Catholic Church Reveal Widespread Abuse

That the bill has been proposed now is no surprise, considering the increased awareness of clergy sexual abuse. In August 2018, a Pennsylvania grand jury released a report detailing the results of their investigation into six of the state’s Catholic dioceses. Though not the first report of its kind, it was one of the broadest in scope, spanning nearly 900 pages and identifying 301 predator priests who preyed on more than 1,000 child victims.

After that report came out, other states launched similar investigations and later released lists of names of abusive clergy members. In October 2018, the U.S. Department of Justice opened a federal investigation into the Pennsylvania dioceses and the diocese of Buffalo, New York, to determine whether any cover-up by the church violated the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.

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